June 28, 2009

What Happened To All The Bunt Hits?

Last year the Twins tied the all-time MLB record for bunt hits in a season with 68, while no other team managed even 40. Carlos Gomez led baseball with 30, which would have ranked sixth among teams, and Alexi Casilla was second in the AL with 16 despite playing only 98 games. Along with Gomez and Casilla combining for 46 bunt hits, Nick Punto chipped in seven, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Matt Tolbert had four apiece, and nearly five percent of the Twins' total hits came via bunt.

This season has been a much different story, as the Twins rank just sixth in bunt hits and are on pace to finish with fewer than half as many as they had last year. Much of the decrease in bunt hits comes from Gomez being relegated to the bench for 32 of 77 games after starting 143 times last season and Casilla playing his way back to Triple-A, because they obviously can't rack up bunt hits from the dugout or Rochester. With that said, bunting less often even when they're in the lineup has also been a factor.

Gomez laid down a bunt in 11 percent of his plate appearances last year, reaching safely 45.5 percent of the time to become just the fifth player since 1959 to bunt for at least 30 hits in a season. This year Gomez has bunted in just six percent of his plate appearances while reaching safely 27.3 percent of the time. In other words, he's bunted about half as often and done so about half as successfully. Much has been made of Gomez's decline at the plate, but bunting accounts for nearly the entire change.

Gomez is hitting just .225 with a .358 slugging percentage on non-bunts this year, which while terrible is no worse than last season when he hit .233 with a .348 slugging percentage on non-bunts. In terms of actual hitting he hasn't changed at all, but the difference is that bunts accounted for over 20 percent of his hits last year and Gomez batted .455 when he laid one down. This year bunts have accounted for just eight percent of Gomez's hits and he's batted just .273 when he lays one down.

Twins fans have heard all about Gomez's supposed potential offensively since the team acquired him as the centerpiece of last offseason's Johan Santana trade, but through over 900 plate appearances in the majors he's hit .227 with a .337 slugging percentage when not bunting. Those are putrid numbers and cast serious doubt on Gomez's ability to develop into an impact hitter, but the good news is that he remains one of the game's fastest players and is a career .433 hitter when dropping a bunt down.

Because of his great glove in center field Gomez will always have value regardless of how poorly he's doing at the plate, but given his success bunting and how horrible he's been when swinging away it makes no sense for him to be laying one down half as often this year. Joe Vavra and company surely have him focusing on putting together better at-bats and taking the ball the other way, which have the potential to make him a competent hitter, but in the meantime his only real weapon has gone missing.

Casilla bunted almost as often as Gomez last year, laying one down in nine percent of his trips to the plate, and was nearly as successful by reaching safely on 43 percent of his attempts. In addition to the bunting Casilla was also more successful than Gomez on non-bunts, hitting .265 with a .368 slugging percentage. Those non-bunt numbers still weren't good, but they're positively Mauer-esque compared to Casilla hitting .162 with a .210 slugging percentage on non-bunts this season.

As a team the Twins have gone from bunting once every 36 plate appearances and reaching safely 40 percent of the time in 2008 to bunting once every 51 plate appearances and reaching safely 28 percent of the time this year. That might not seem like a huge difference and certainly the lineup's dramatically increased power is a much more important change overall, but when it comes to the light-hitting speed guys like Gomez, Casilla, Tolbert, and Punto all struggling the lack of bunts is definitely curious.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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